On the land bordering the Mediterranean coastline of Catalunya, just outside of Barcelona, Oriol Artigas tends vineyards in one of the smallest appellations of Spain, Alella, which is home to just 220 hectares of vines. Despite being a small appellation, it is steeped in history and dates back to Roman times.
Still today it represents a wealth of historic and genetic diversity, and it is from the region’s treasures — its old vines — that Oriol produces his soulful cuvées. Through a deep love for organic and regenerative viticulture, he is working to preserve both the genetic diversity that exists in his vineyards, as well as to ensure that his soils are healthy and thriving.
We caught up with him on his recent visit to London in April 2022. Watch a short interview clip with him below.
“I don’t come from a wine family. When I finished high school, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I thought about many different possibilities, but in the end, I knew I was good at science, so I went to university to study chemistry. When I was in my last semester, I had a very good offer for a job. It was a laboratory job which would pay a lot of money, but their only condition was that I needed to end my studies. In my last interview, I thought, but how will this affect my life? If I end my studies, well… that’s the best kind of work. So, I ended that career there.”
Unsure of what to do, he decided to travel to Australia to do a harvest with a friend who had been staying in Catalonia.
“He said, said and come with me to work in a winery! We live in the countryside and have a garden. I said, ok! That trip was a revelation for me. It was a great adventure. It wasn’t the kind of winery like the one I have today, but there was something about my experience there that touched me. I really enjoyed the sharing element of that kind of work, so I began to think that maybe I could have a career as an oenologist.”
Hence, Oriol decided to study winemaking, and learnt all about the chemistry behind wine. However, eventually he decided that the life of an oenologist, working in wineries around the world, wasn’t what he wanted after all. He says,
“I think wine is about roots — your place. My objective was to make wine from my home, so it didn’t make much sense in the end to go to Burgundy or Chile, for example, as they don’t have the climate or the varieties of my home region. So, I decided to begin making wine in my garage in 2007. I made 300 bottles, sold half to my neighbours and half to a friend for their wedding, and with that money I bought a tank and rented a vineyard. That’s how it all began.”
Together with a team of three, today Oriol farms 15 hectares across 12 different parcels. 10 hectares are planted to old vines that are over 60 years of age, with some even over 100! These plots are planted with very narrow spacing, so all work must be done by hand, as it’s impossible to squeeze tractors in between the rows. However, it is not just a practical decision: Oriol also believes in protecting the structure of the soils. He explains,
“We don’t plough the soils. On the slopes we have a lot of sand, so if we were to plough, the erosion would be terrible, and we would lose the humus and the life in the topsoil.”
The vineyards are planted to an astonishing number of varieties, including Pansa Blanca (Xarel-lo), Grenache Noir, Pansa Negra, Pansa Rosada, Godello, Garnacha Blanca, Picapoll (very similar to the French Clairette, yet it is not yet certain whether it is identical or closely related), Syrah, Merlot, Mataro (Mourvèdre), Sumoll, Muscat Negre, Beier, Grenache Gris, Sant Jaume, Malvasia, Muscat, Bona Llavor, ull de Llebre (Tempranillo), Macabeu, Subirat Parent (Alarije). Additionally, there are more indigenous (and perhaps even unknown) varieties present in smaller numbers, which Oriol is working to understand and preserve. He is focused on conservation, and replants dead and missing vine spaces to preserve these varieties.
He has become particularly renowned for his work with Pansa Blanca, more commonly known as Xarel-lo, which is one of the grapes for Cava production. Through thoughtful vinification and ageing, he has been elevating it to new heights, showing its capacity for terroir expression both as a varietal wine and in blends.
He works across three main terroirs. ‘Sauló’ is composed of granite, from the mountains, and sand. ‘Les Prats,’ located closer to the sea, is chalky, with a high number of fossilised seashells, oysters and cockles on the soil, on top of granite bedrock. ‘Licorella’ is brown schist; a mineral and volcanic type of soil.
Since day one, farming has been organic. Oriol also follows the lunar calendar where possible, as well as making compost to spread on the soils to increase the organic matter and hence nourish the vines. He takes some inspiration from biodynamics, but doesn’t yet have animals, as he very much has his hands full (literally) with the work needed to tend his old vines without the help of machinery. He explains that in order to farm in the true biodynamic way, he considers the presence of animals to be very important, and hence does not claim to farm biodynamically. Rather, this is a thoughtful and regenerative form of organic farming that focuses primarily on soil health.
Unfortunately, like so many other regions in the world, Alella is also being affected by climate change. In 2020, high periods of humidity caused Oriol to lose an enormous 90% of his crop. He was able to reach out to supportive winemaker friends to buy some grapes, so that he wouldn’t lose close to an entire year’s worth of production, hence the SOS cuvées were born. Despite the tragedy, he is choosing to see it as a learning experience. Instead of simply sticking to the organic sulphur and copper sprays, which can also be harmful to life in the vineyards, he is also carrying out additional research on ways to combat mildew organically by promoting bacterial growth to naturally fight fungal disease.
After a few years of experimentation and growing his business organically, Oriol’s first commercial vintage was 2011. Through years of experimenting, he has now found the methods that suit his personal vision of wine and the fruit from his region — gentle maceration for the reds, and varying short periods of skin contact for the whites — using stainless steel, amphorae and old oak barrels. He also makes delicious pét-nat to highlight what his fruit can achieve in terms of bubbles. He doesn’t add sulfites, nor does he fine or filter any of his wines. These are Catalonian grapes in their birthday suit. Oriol says,
“In my first vintage, when I was working in the winery I hated adding sulfites, as they smell really bad. It just doesn’t feel good. I like this life as a winemaker, but I don’t want to die doing it! Sometimes you just have the sensation that you’re adding something really toxic. So, I became focused on looking for wines that didn’t have that kind of intervention, and that’s how I found natural and biodynamic wines. That’s when I realised that I couldn’t make wines like that by using the methods I had learnt at school. That was hard for me, as I thought… am I doing something bad? Is my terroir just not good? But I knew that the Romans had chosen my region to grow vines, so therefore the terroir must be good. So, I began to break all the rules I had learnt at school.”
We ask him how having a scientific background influences his approach in the winery:
“Knowledge is always good. Having knowledge in chemistry is like having another point of view. When I look at wine, chemistry isn’t necessarily adding something. Rather, you understand what’s happening inside the wine, and why that changes the wine. You can play with the stems or the skins, all the different parts of the grapes. It’s like cooking… you think, I can combine this with that, perhaps that will give something softer without adding anything.”
It's an endless journey of discovery and learning, which comes about from tinkering with the natural processes of fermentation and ageing. We ask him what he’s currently working on:
“At the moment, I’m very focused on texture of the wine. Acidity and freshness is important, as that keeps the wine alive, but the texture of the wine is the element that makes you want to drink more (or not). At the end of the day, I love it when a bottle of wine is emptied quickly — when people are laughing, smiling and happy. I think the texture is a really important part of that. Then, with a mindset of chemistry, you know how to achieve it.”
It's a simple notion, but we couldn’t agree more. He continues,
“Ultimately, wine is wine. It’s important that people drink it, share it, and feel good! It’s about connection. I don’t often like to open a bottle of wine just for myself, but when someone comes to my home, I love to open a bottle to share. That’s what wine is about for me — sharing. It’s not really about drinking, but rather the conversations. It’s like you make a sort of transformation when you drink wine. New ideas come, and you form a special connection with people. Plus, it’s important to be happy in what you’re doing every day!”
It is a wonderfully inspiring conversation that leaves us smiling from ear to ear. Just like Oriol says, isn’t that what wine is about, at the end of the day? If we can spread joy from winemakers who love what they do while tending the planet with care, that’s all we can really hope for.